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Azubuike: E-voting is good, but fraught with peculiar challenges

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Azubuike

Dr. Lawrence Azubuike served the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) in Anambra, Enugu, and the Ebonyi States. In this interaction with LEO SOBECHI, he explains why Nigeria should not be in a hurry to embrace Electronic Voting (e-Voting)

Proponents say e-voting holds the ace, do you agree?

No doubt, in an ideal world, e-voting would add value to the electoral procedure. Machines can facilitate and expedite voting, counting, and collation. As a result, it should have the potential of creating better and easier access to the ballot; and consequently democratic participation.

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Besides, it may further be argued, if technology pervades our daily lives, why should voting be exempted from this modern way of life? After all, just about everyone carries smartphones and conducts banking and other transactions on such devices. Add to these, the current pandemic and the resultant need to limit mass gatherings.

But, the current socio-political and economic context in Nigeria is far from ideal and does not conduce to a beneficial introduction of e-voting for now. Every expert on the issue agrees that credibility is the foundation of every successful electoral process. If people do not trust the system, it cannot really succeed. Unfortunately, such credibility is sorely lacking in Nigeria. Cynicism has characterized the attitude of the Nigerian people to elections in the country.

Most believe that they are rigged. Even the statutory and administrative frameworks seem to underscore this point. They tend to be verbose, all in a bid to anticipate every possible eventuality and to leave the electoral body with very limited, if any, discretions. The rules require that most electoral activities be conducted in a transparent manner, in the presence of stakeholders.

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Without any improvement in public confidence in the system, a significant change, such as might be done by the introduction of e-voting, may cause more problems, instead of providing solutions. Transparency will be lost.

Then there is the challenge of lack of requisite infrastructure. Obviously, a transition to e-voting will entail considerable investment in technology, given current conditions. It may be a patriotic gesture to explore homegrown technology, but the reality is that the level of local technology is still years behind what may be needed to successfully implement e-voting.

There would also need to be an upgrade in manpower. If internet voting is to be allowed, what would happen to those who do not have access to the internet? Admittedly, they may have the option of going to the polls.

But that will raise the issue of inequality. Some voters would have more convenient access than the others. Besides, the level of general and technological literacy may mar an immediate introduction of e-voting.

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Many places in the country are without adequate telephone networks. E-voting may not work well in such places. Also, machines may break down. We may encounter technology in our everyday lives, but it is one thing to have a glitch with the banking network, but another to have that in the mammoth electoral exercise.

A person would always know when there has been an error with their account and can contact the institution, but such glitch, or error, in the voting process may go uncorrected and of course, has graver implications. The experience with card readers and the ultimate resort to incident forms illustrate the reality of this challenge.

In the light of vote-buying, is paper ballot still credible?
One of the most important functions of any electoral system is to conduct a free and fair election, the outcome of which reflects the will of the people. While the current paper ballot process is not perfect, any change should, at a minimum, improve, and not worsen, the process. If e-voting in an uncontrolled environment, such as the use of internet voting, is introduced, it will multiply the problems of the current system. Secrecy of the ballot will vanish.

The country has recently faced the anomaly of vote-buying, a practice in which some voters collect money from unscrupulous politicians in order to vote for them. Some actually hand over their permanent voter cards.

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A situation, in which people can vote from the privacy of their homes, will lead to “vote-buying on steroids.” This is in addition to the ability of politicians, and others, to exert other forms of interference.

Under current practice, where voting and counting of votes are decentralized to the polling units, the impact of any electoral malfeasance can be limited to specific areas and may or may not affect the overall result. In an election affecting a wider constituency, such as presidential or gubernatorial elections, perpetrators of such mischief have a more difficult task, because they have to orchestrate their foul-play in many places. But the use of e-voting may make it simpler for riggers. To achieve their nefarious objective, they just have to compromise the central system. Machines can also be hacked.

Related to this problem is the diminution in the oversight of the electoral process. By its very nature, e-voting is technical. At best, in addition to the vendors of the technology, only a few members of the election management body may understand the minutiae of the technical process. At worst, only the vendors may do so.

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Whatever the case, a level of sophistication and expertise, not ordinarily possessed by the average voter, is required to monitor the process. This is the reason some countries, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, which are more advanced than Nigeria, are skeptical of e-voting. They think that it deprives citizens of the ability, and right, to observe and, in a way, supervise elections.

Adoption of e-voting will have far-reaching implications for Nigeria’s electoral process. If it must be embraced, it must be done with caution. It has to be introduced gradually. It will be a monumental mistake to do so in the general elections. Perhaps, it could be trialed in the stand-alone elections. As the legislators consider the issue, they must be careful to not entrench a rigid monster that is capable of fostering grave injustice. A reasonable way of going about it is to grant some flexibility to INEC. That way, the electoral body can experiment with it, evaluate its efficacy in our environment, learn the proper lessons, and be at liberty to continue with, or abandon it, as the case may be. The proposed legislation, or amendment, may permit, but not compel, its use. A statutory prescription mandating the use of e-voting will do more harm than good.

How can Nigeria overcome challenges of credible balloting?
Devising an efficient electoral system has been a challenge in Nigeria. In fact, prior disruptions in the country’s democratic experience owed largely to crises directly linked to dissatisfaction with, and perceptions of distortions of, the electoral process.

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The election management bodies have grappled with this challenge, just as different laws have instituted frameworks to ensure free, fair, and credible elections. We have experimented with different forms of voting such as the open ballot system, modified open ballot system, open-secret ballot system, and even a dichotomy between accreditation and voting.

Yet, there has continued to be a yearning for a panacea to the myriad problems plaguing the electoral process. Some think that electronic voting (e-voting) is the magic wand that can heal everything wrong with the process.

Whilst that notion has been around for some time, it is instructive that the prevailing electoral law is dubious about it, since the law specifically prohibits its use. However, advocates of e-voting appear to have swayed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

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Recent reports quote INEC as stating that the 2019 general elections would be the “last mainly manual election in Nigeria.” It is understood that the commission is also taking steps to cause legislative amendments to enable e-voting.

Presumably, such suggested changes will include the abrogation of the statutory prohibition against e-voting. Nevertheless, it is argued here that Nigeria and INEC must proceed on the e-voting path with caution and, not so fast.

How far can technology be of help to deliver credible polls?
In the contemporary world, technology is ever-present. Notwithstanding such ubiquity, e-voting entails the deliberate deployment of technological devices in the process of voting, a phenomenon that is not yet universal.

Even though there may be slight variations, e-voting means a system where a voter casts their ballot using an electronic system rather than a paper ballot. It may take one of three main forms.

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First, an optical scanner may be used to read the paper ballot cast by voters. A second kind is direct recording electronic voting, whereby voters input their votes into a machine. At the end of the day, the machine counts the votes. There may, or may not, be a paper backup to confirm that someone voted or how they voted.

While these two methods of e-voting are used in a controlled environment since the machines are usually in the polling station, the third kind is more radical and characterized by the fact that the voter exercises their franchise in an uncontrolled environment. This is voting through the Internet.

A person can vote from the comfort of their home or any other place, for that matter. INEC has not disclosed the particular form of e-voting it is considering. It is also possible that it might develop its peculiar variant of the process. There once was talk of adopting an indigenously developed voting machine. No matter how e-voting is tweaked, it tends to fall into these broad forms. A machine replaces the ballot paper.

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